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Coach Kim: What's really happening with toxic people

Posted July 4

In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim shares some tips for surviving your dealings with toxic, difficult people.

Question:

Why are ex-spouses so mean and vindictive? I've been divorced almost seven years and my ex still never misses a chance to tell the kids what a loser I am. It can be petty things like,"Your dad doesn't know how to make healthy meals" and "You'll get fat if you stay with him" or "Your dad no longer believes in (our church) and is not capable of loving you like I do because real love comes from Jesus." How do I even address this type of nonsense? I can cook, by the way, let's be clear on that. How do you deal with this kind of person?

Answer:

You asked a bunch of questions here, so let me address each one, and for my readers, these answers can apply to any toxic person in your life, not just an ex-spouse.

First, you asked, “Why are ex-spouses so mean and vindictive?”

Most of them are committed to a story that casts you as the bad one, and they need to put you down constantly to distract their focus from their own fears of inadequacy and loss. Most hurtful people are hurt themselves and they focus on judging and criticizing you because dealing with their own issues would be too painful. They usually have a huge fear of not being good enough (or being inadequate, broken or messed up in some way). We all have it to some degree and it drives a lot of our bad behavior too.

Having a marriage fail usually triggers the fear of failure in a big way, so most people after divorce (consciously or subconsciously) create a story that casts the other spouse as the problem. They can be very attached to this story because their self-worth is literally dependent on it. They may even need to feed the story and make it bigger by adding new faults and flaws all the time. Adding to this story may even become their safe place and they may spend a great deal of time here.

Remember, they do this to avoid the deep pain that comes with recognizing they might have issues and problems too. The more fear of failure they have, the more committed they may be in blaming you and making sure everyone knows you were/are the problem.

We call this behavior the “Shame and Blame Game” and we all play it to some extent. You might notice it when you forget to do something you promised to do, and instead of owning the mistake, you go off about the stupid people at work that messed your day up. When any shame experience hits you, you will subconsciously jump to the nearest plausible person to blame.

(If you watch for this behavior you will see it in yourself and others all the time. It’s a common tendency of human nature.)

You will also see people (or you might be someone) who is quite judgmental of others and find yourself involved in gossip, criticism and backbiting now and then. We do this because, again, it subconsciously and temporarily distracts us from our own fears of inadequacy. We might also complain about the company, the schools, the government, the church, the neighbors or anyone we can see bad in, because this subconsciously makes us feel like the good guy, in light of how bad all these other people are. This is just a trick our egos play to feel better.

Really toxic people (I’m talking about those that are almost impossible to have a productive, respectful relationship with) are usually deeply afraid they aren’t good enough and are afraid of being mistreated or taken from. They may hide these fears behind a great deal of ego and act very arrogant, but underneath it, they are a very scared person. Seeing them as scared, and not just offensive, will help you to have more compassion and less anger around them.

We consider these types of people toxic because their fears keep them focused, day and night, on getting, doing, saying or creating whatever they need to quiet those fears. In this state, they are very selfish and are mostly incapable of showing up for anyone else. They are so busy guarding, protecting and promoting themselves, they have nothing left to put into relating with the rest of us.

I tell you this, not so you can stand in judgment of them, but so you can have some accuracy and compassion for what’s behind their bad behavior. Having said that, it does not mean you have to continue to deal with them. Your best bet is usually to love them from afar. It is perfectly reasonable to have firm boundaries and stay away from them as much as possible.

It sounds like your ex is one of these fear-driven, scared people, who sink to the level of tearing others down, so they can feel better. It sounds like she has launched a campaign to convince your children she is the good guy and you are the bad guy. That is really sad because, in the end, it is your kids who will be hurt by this behavior. Your ex may also feel threatened by you and be afraid the kids will end up taking your side or liking you better, and this drives even more bad behavior.

Your next question was, “How do I address this type of nonsense? How do you deal with this kind of person?”

Here are some tips for dealing with toxic people:

1. Take the high road. Don’t sink to her level and say negative things about her to the kids.

The kids will figure out on their own the truth about who both their parents are. You show them every day with your behavior. If you continue to be mature, kind, respectful, loving and calm, your kids will adore and respect you no matter what your ex may tell them. If they believe her lies now, be patient because the truth rises to the surface on its own. If they ask you directly about things she says, answer honestly, but be careful not to sink to her level.

2. Remember your value is the same no matter what she says about you.

She cannot diminish you! She can’t change the truth about who you are. Hold onto that and don’t react to her darts. Let them all bounce off and don’t even be offended by them. They can’t hurt you unless you pick them up and stab yourself with them.

3. Choose to see this situation as an interesting classroom that apparently has something to teach you or is meant to grow you.

If you choose to, you can see every experience in your life as something that is here to serve and grow you. If you choose to see life this way, it feels like life is serving you, not trying to crush you. In this place, you will see each experience as a chance to rise and do better or become better.

Take the challenge to rise and be a better version of yourself in spite of (or even through) this experience. I believe difficult people are here to show us the limits of our love and stretch us and help us learn to love (or have compassion) at a higher level. This doesn’t mean you accept abuse from them, but it does mean you handle it with as much class, maturity and kindness as possible— while protecting yourself too.

4. When you have to respond and interact with a toxic person, choose to make yourself bulletproof and undiminishable so that nothing they do or say can anger or upset you.

You are in control of how much another person’s actions affect you. No one can anger or upset you without your participation and willingness to experience that. You are responsible for how upset you choose to be. You may have an unconscious upset reaction to a situation that shows up so fast you didn’t consciously choose it. But as you realize you are upset, you then have the power to choose how miserable and upset you want to stay and for how long.

5. Give yourself a set amount of time (a reasonable amount) to be really angry and upset. Then choose something better.

I usually need 15 minutes to really be mad and upset about what someone said or did, and I make those 15 minutes really count and I allow myself to really suffer in the hurt and anger.

Then, I decide I really don’t want to live in this state because it will hurt me more than the person who upset me. I choose another emotion that I deserve to feel instead. (I sometimes have to take my anger and put it in a closet and lock the door for now. That way I know I can go back in there and dwell in it again if I really need to.) But for now, I will choose something more constructive, like gratitude for what’s right in my life, love for my kids, or kindness toward others.

Do not let other people decide how happy, miserable, peaceful or upset you will be today. Consciously choose for yourself. Choose the emotions inside you in every moment because letting others dictate how you feel is letting them have power over you, which is what they want.

You can do this.

Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.

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